Although on the surface it might seem that Mussolini’s fascists did come to power mainly through the failings of the Socialists, it is important to remember that there were several other key factors that aided the rise of the fascists, and, more importantly, that without the skilful exploitation of the many inherent weaknesses within the socialist organisations it seems logical to suggest that Mussolini would never have come to power.The failure of the Socialists to capitalise upon the advantageous position that they earned during 1919-21 undeniably played a vital role in the fascist rise to power. The socialists were in positions of power throughout very considerable portions of the south of Italy, and were controlling councils mainly due to victories in local municipal elections.
This is indicative of the huge amount of support that the socialists had gained, especially when viewed in conjunction with the fact that they had the means to organise events such as the occupation of the factories in September (400,000 workers participated), with their influence extending to both the North and Southern regions.However, despite some potentially strong leadership and widespread support, the socialists did not take power either through legitimate or revolutionary means. There were also cracks showing within the movement due to internal rivalries and ideological differences (minimalists and maximalists wanting to achieve power through different means). The result of this was a steadily growing lack of support, compounded by bitterness towards the socialists from ex soldiers unhappy about the way in which socialists had apparently profited while they were away fighting a difficult war. The newly set up fascist movement was quick to capitalise on this situation. It exploited the fears of the industrialists and landowners, in putting down socialist organisations violently, dispersing those involved in strikes and restoring order (at least in the eyes of the middle classes) through violent intervention.
It also attracted those who wanted revolutionary change, as they had become disillusioned with the lack of a definitive strategy on the part of the socialists.While it might seem that this situation was created entirely through the failings of the socialists, Mussolini was quick to take credit for attacks against the militant socialists and therefore the fascists gained huge amounts of financial and moral backing from the wealthy (and therefore powerful) landowners and industrialists. The socialist movement was arguably faltering anyway, but it was due in no small part to the skill and intuition of the fascists (leaders as opposed to the local Ras) that the fascists were able to take credit for the situation and project themselves into the public consciousness as guardians of Italy and the interests of the middle classes against the imminent threat of socialism.To this end, the fascists also attracted large numbers of important groups and social classes such as the ‘petty bourgeoisie’ through their exploitation of people’s fears about what a socialist takeover might represent in terms of a threat to their own interests.
The appeal cultivated by the fascists in this respect was to gain recognition and support more through what they opposed rather than what they represented (their policy outline plan was at best ambiguous and constantly changing). Fascism offered something which appealed to almost every section of the populace, mainly through its malleable policy programme, which included the promise of increased worker participation in industry to appease workers, a common standard of education for all to appease the liberals, and increased Italian recognition on the international scene to attract embittered war veterans and patriots. There was also the idea of violent opposition to socialism, which was approved of by most other groups, from the catholics to the industrialists and arguably gained them the most support.On balance, it would seem that in this area, although they were largely buoyed by opposition to socialism and socialist failings, the fascists did take considerable independent steps to attract and retain the support of different groups within society.
It would seem that the somewhat undefined policy plan was deliberately crafted in order to attract as much support from as many different areas as possible. It also seems probable that the flexible ideology of fascism played a very significant role in this, extending its appeal to a whole range of people. This, in my opinion, played a more important role in the ultimate fascist rise to power than the weaknesses of socialism when looked at as a single factor, although it is unquestionable that the fundamental flaws within the socialist movement did open up a vital opportunity for the fascists to gain a foothold and project their ideas.In terms of the actual events leading immediately up to Mussolini’s installation as Prime Minister, the socialists did somewhat strengthen the appeal of fascism through their weaknesses once more. A general strike was called in anticipation of the Fascist march on Rome, and it was a spectacular failure. Many were unwilling to take part, or unwilling to oppose fascism in any way (a large number of former socialist workers had needed to defer to fascism simply to find work in the growing anti-socialist climate) and the strike was called off after one day. This served as a monument to the success of fascism as a movement with the primary intention of smashing socialism, and increased the confidence of the industrialists and middle classes who had aided the fascist rise to power with financial support.
At this time, however, the fascists did also demonstrate other skills that were necessary (without any relation to weaknesses within the socialist party) that were to be instrumental in their rise to power. They were able to manipulate public mood and that of the authorities, through giving the impression that they were far greater and more powerful than their numbers suggested. The seizure of key points within Rome on the 27th October was carried out by around a fourth of the planned number, yet the town prefects and authorities offered little resistance in the fear that they would be overwhelmed by the sheer force of the fascist armies.
This was another element of fascism that led to their assumption of power, the ability to gain the support of the authorities. Although principally down to socialism and the fear of anarchy that this brought, the fascists had promised to re-introduce law and order in Italy and consequently many army and police units were prepared to cooperate with the squads, or at least not to physically oppose them.It further secured their position as the defenders of public order and security and thus further support from liberals and liberal publications was gained. The unwillingness of Mussolini to be absorbed into a coalition government was vital in the fascist victory, another factor which was independent of any reliance on weaknesses within the socialist party. Had he accepted the positions offered to him by Giolitti, it seems likely that the poignancy of fascism as a force for change might have been blunted had he become just another politician in the Giolitti mould.
In fact, Mussolini’s steadfast refusal to join the government as anything but Prime Minister in late October 1922 was to prove to be fundamentally important in terms of bringing about the offer from the king to form a fascist government.Other factors for the fascist assumption of power include the problems brought about by the so-called ‘mutilated victory’ and the promise of a militant movement that would restore Italy’s prestige, as demonstrated by D’Annunzio and his occupation of Fiume. There is also the attitude of individuals to take into account when assessing the reasons for Mussolini’s rise to power, including the indecisiveness of the king and his overestimation of the fascist’s power. This was undeniably important in that it removed a key obstacle facing the fascists. It can be said that the fascists engineered this as well, in that their attitude towards the monarchy remained ambiguous and was therefore able to be adapted to suit their purposes, which ultimately were to persuade the king to offer the Prime Ministership to Mussolini within a legitimate framework in order to retain the support of royalists. The economic impact of the war such as inflation and mass unemployment also took its toll, especially when coupled with the socialists reluctance to do anything decisive to alleviate the situation. This is a factor which might suggest that the socialists weaknesses played a more important role in the fascists’ rise to power. Despite this, Mussolini took steps to incorporate groups previously opposed by the fascists, such as the church.
He was on friendly terms with the Pope, who as a bishop had allowed Mussolini to display fascist banners in his church and supported the movement as a whole.The importance of this kind of political manoeuvre cannot be underestimated. The support of the pope would lead to the support of a huge number of Catholics influenced by his personal attitude, and these constituted a good deal of the populace. This is indicative of the way in which the fascists (Mussolini in particular) successfully treaded a middle-ground between an image of violent castigators of socialists and a ‘respectable’ political movement. Mussolini was able to present his fascist squads’ violence as painful but necessary if Italy was to be great once more, an idea that appealed to almost everyone bar socialists. This again was vital in the ascent to power and had more to do with independent skills developed by the fascists than with weaknesses found within socialism. However, the ‘pacification pact’ signed by Mussolini when he primarily took a seat within the coalition government was utterly rejected by the bulk of militant fascists, and it seems that had Mussolini not renounced it he may have lost a great deal of vital support. This gives rise to the idea that Fascism did indeed need the socialists in order to provide a tangible enemy which they could publicly repel.
It should also not be presumed that the only party whose failings gave rise to fascist power was the socialists-the liberal government was also deeply unpopular due to its reluctance to take a definite position on conflicts arising between those on the right (industrialists and fascists) and those on the left (militant trade unions).In conclusion, it seems that although the majority of the situations that allowed the fascists to exert their influence and assert an authoritative control over matters of social unrest and hardships in Italy were brought about due to failings within the socialist movement, it was down to the skills developed and tactics employed by fascist leaders that allowed them to make full use of the opportunities that had arisen. Perhaps the most effective illustration of this is the impression of the neutralisation of the socialist threat projected by the fascists, despite the fact that the movement was already on the decline when the fascists began to confront it. Similarly, there does seem to be a larger number of factors that allowed the fascists to take power that were brought about by the appeal and tactics of the movement rather than socialist failings.